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Inside virtual Ford

Rafay Ansar



Ford is taking a page from Hollywood filmmakers to speed the product-development process and bring cars to the market faster.

The automaker is using virtual design tools--similar to the technology used to generate moving images in The Polar Express, Shrek and other animated movies--to make the interiors of its cars more comfortable and help bring them to the market eight months to 14 months quicker than it did several years ago, and at a lower cost.

Automakers are notoriously reluctant to let anyone, (especially reporters) into their development chambers, but Ford recently let us check out--and play with--some of the design tools in what it calls the Immersive Virtual Review lab.

We arrived at the nondescript building nestled on Ford's campus in Dearborn, Mich., and were escorted inside. After a brief, classroom-style presentation on why this is important, we went inside the lab. It's kind of dark, like being back stage on a set somewhere in Southern California, and three stations were set up.

First up is the CAVE (Cave Automated Virtual Environment). Yes, it's actually called that, and it's a stand with a raised chair that simulates the interior of a car. We're handed Blues Brothers-style virtual-reality glasses and ascend to take a seat in the virtual world. Now, we're in a Ford Flex, surrounded by tall buildings on a street in downtown Anywhere, U.S.A. It's pretty real too. The point is to see how the Flex's interior works, without building a clay model or larger-sized mock-ups, which automakers call "bucks."

In the virtual world, you can check out the layout of the instrument panel, test visibility by gawking out the windows and in general see whether it's ergonomically friendly. It's like a video game, but for Ford, it's far from fun and games. Ford used this technology to make a critical change in the placement of the navigation screen in the Flex as it evolved from the original concept's interior to production.

After a few minutes inside the faux Flex, we get off the stand, tripping slightly down the small ladder as our eyes readjust to the room.

Next on the agenda is something Ford calls an open-volume station, and the idea is to get a more detailed feel for the interior. We take a seat inside a virtual Lincoln MKS. Again we're in a downtown setting, with cars and people entering the scene. In this session, we're fitted with a weighty headset that looks like the contraptions doctors use to stabilize people's vertebrae, and a leather, clawlike glove. Here there's more interaction, and we pound on the top of the virtual dashboard and reach out and grab the steering wheel. The focus is to design an interior that's comfortable for people of all sizes. This is where the participants are really more like guinea pigs, and Ford engineers use this to study what drivers can and can't reach. It saves time, because engineers can make the testers any size--a middle-aged guy can become a pregnant woman, for example.

The last station is dubbed the PVM, or Programmable Vehicle Model. This is a cool experience because there's a physical car layout, including rows of seats and doors. But it's not an expensive model, and looks more like something kids make out of couch cushions for pretend driving. The physical parts are props, and when we put on the headgear and glove again, we are transported back to a virtual Ford Flex. Now we can grab the steering wheel and turn it, and the tactile response is helpful to engineers as they design the size and shape of the interior. It can also be used for exterior features. This stand is best known for settling an argument over the height of the beltline on the production Flex.

"In real time, we could raise or lower it, and we walked out of here with an agreement," said Patrick Schiavone, design director for Ford's North American trucks and SUVs.

This station can be configured to mimic nearly anything Ford makes, from B-segment offerings to an F-350. After a soaking in this final station, we step back out into the real world, leaving behind virtual design. It takes less than a minute to get in and out of the equipment at each step, and it's a fairly fun, interactive experience that seems to help Ford design better cars. It makes sense that the Blue Oval would invite the media to try it, and even go as far as to shoot commercials about it (check out the latest "Drive One" spots for this two-hour experience condensed into mere seconds).

The star of those commercials, Elizabeth Baron, is a Ford technical specialist, and she neatly sums up the virtual experience: "We can understand it from a person's perspective, instead of analytical studies."

So maybe virtual reality isn't totally Hollywood, but it's far better than analytical studies--and that's sure to benefit consumers.
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